Dr Emalani Case, a Pacific Studies lecturer at Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington, explains how the movement to protect Mauna Kea in Hawai’i inspired her to complete her book Everything Ancient Was Once New: Indigenous Persistence from Hawai’i to Kahiki.
“Everything ancient was once new.”
I carried those words on my shoulders all day. They settled in my chest, making it hard to breathe. They were heavy words. They still are.
That morning in June 2019, I awoke to early text messages from Hawaiʻi, my home, alerting me to the fact that, once again, we were being denied the right to grow, to age, to become ancient.
At home, where we’ve been engaged in an ongoing effort to protect our mountain, Mauna Kea, from destruction and desecration, three of our structures — a hale (thatched house) and two ahu (altars) — were dismantled by law enforcement.
The justification was that they weren’t “traditional” or “customary” because they were built by contemporary kiaʻi (protectors).
Following the work of people like Albert Wendt, I’m critical of terms like “traditional” and I encourage my students to be so as well. They lock us into static notions of culture, assuming one “right” way to be, to exist.
Words like “traditional” are used to inflict violence against us. That violence was seen on the mountain as our structures were taken apart unceremoniously — in direct contrast to the sanctified ways they were assembled and established, with prayer and intention to bring protection and safety to a mountain we know and treat as an ancestor.
I watched the news in the early morning thinking about the colonial beliefs and rationales that are constantly enacted against us as Indigenous peoples. Because of these imposed narratives and measures of authenticity, we are not allowed to exist as fully human in the present.
We are either too mixed, too modern, or too influenced by other cultures to be “Hawaiian enough” — that “enoughness” being a colonial construction based on settler notions of time and change.
Therefore, anything we create is “not enough” to be protected, at least as long as it threatens the colonial state that relies on our constant dehumanisation to endure. We are therefore always seen as part-something — parted from aspects of ourselves, because, only by cutting us off from our histories, ancestries, and each other, can the state thrive.
In the dismantling of our structures, though, the state exposed its weaknesses and our Indigenous persistence. While I may have held grief in my chest that day, walking around feeling heavy, lamenting the inability of our structures to age, I realised that the insistence on taking them down meant that they were threatening.
They were symbols of our survival, our resistance, and our radical hope for the Indigenous futures we are creating, and will continue to create, in the now.
“Everything ancient was once new” was therefore the reminder I needed to recommit myself to that process of creation, future building, dreaming, storytelling, and Indigenous persistence that enabled our survival in the past and that will allow our ancientness to be in a constant process of becoming in the present.
About a month later, I flew home to stand on the mountain with other kiaʻi, carrying that reminder with me. Days before I left Aotearoa, 33 elders were arrested for sitting on the access road to the top of the mountain, effectively blocking construction crews from travelling to the summit to begin construction on a 30-metre telescope.
Seeing my people and witnessing the strength in our unity, I knew I needed to be there, that nothing was more important that putting my entire being, body and soul, in that space of protective action.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but my going home to Mauna Kea was also a necessary part of creating the book that eventually took its name from the words I carried with me as I thought about our hale and ahu on the mountain: Everything Ancient Was Once New: Indigenous Persistence from Hawai’i to Kahiki.
Though significant portions of the book were inspired by my PhD research that focused on the Hawaiian concept of Kahiki — both an ancestral homeland for my people and the knowledge of connection across the Pacific — it was the journey home and the reminder to keep creating in the present that inspired me to rewrite the manuscript I had submitted based on my thesis. I wanted to publish a book that could speak directly to our movements to protect our places and our right to be Indigenous in those places.
As I sit and reflect on that journey, and the global pandemic that has since made such travel home difficult to impossible, I’m reminded of the wisdom captured in Indigenous concepts like Kahiki: physical distance never separates us from responsibility.
While I live in Aotearoa, my duty to care for the places that nourish us, that provide the foundation for our Indigenous persistence at home, is constant.
It’s also transferable, able to be extended to the grounds and waters I now live on in Aotearoa — and out to the entire region that has held, inspired, and given our Pacific peoples spaces to grow, change, and become ancient for generations.
Everything Ancient Was Once New is about that duty, that responsibility, that transcends settler notions of time and space, that calls on us to re-engage with the ancestral obligations we have to each other, to our futures, and to ensuring that we always have a place in this world.
Dr Emalani Case is a Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiian) writer, teacher, and aloha ‘āina. She is deeply engaged in issues of Indigenous rights and representation, colonialism and decolonisation, and environmental and social justice. She is the author of Everything Ancient Was Once New: Indigenous Persistence from Hawai’i to Kahiki, which is due to be launched in June. She is from Waimea, Hawai’i.
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